Early September in Austin has a never-ending quality. The calendar page, the return of students and teachers to school, the fall clothes catalogs - all suggest that summer is ending. Outside, the cicadas buzz, the yellowing trees hang on for their lives, and the sun continues to bake the ground in the land of eternal summer. I find myself wondering not when, but if, the heat will end.
I remember my first summer in Austin. I was amazed by the rainy, humid days of June. I felt like a newcomer to the rain forest. When the rains of June gave way to hot and sticky July days, I walked so many miles that I got a heat rash. Undaunted, I walked right through the oven-blasted days of August, tolerating every minute of triple digits. I like the heat, I kept telling myself, remembering the dark and rainy place that I had left behind. Then came September, and the furnace of summer kept blasting, and the sun felt even closer, hotter. Only then did I begin to understand that the Austin summer was a new season, not a variation on the northwestern summer that I knew, but an entirely different season that I had only begun to appreciate.
I watch the older, established trees in the late summer. I worry for them. In drought years, August and September are the months when another year of survival is an open question for a tree. If a tree dies, we see it in the spring, when the new leaves don't appear, but, for the tree, death happened last year, in the late summer. Next year's leaves were not made, or not enough sugar was stored, to power another year of growth. Either way, not having enough water the summer before was the deciding factor.
A large hackberry tree grows in my backyard, at the southwestern corner of my house. When I first bought the house I wanted to have the tree removed because it was ugly, it shaded my backyard from any southern light, and, honestly, I didn't like hackberry trees. But I realized quickly that, without that hackberry tree, my drafty, under-insulated house would be even hotter than it already is on summer evenings. I have also learned that hackberry trees, though messy and hated by many, are valuable native trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife. In particular, many native birds of central Texas eat the fruit of the hackberry trees. So I have learned to accept my hackberry tree.
Late summer, when I need the shade of my backyard trees the most, brings out the worst in the hackberry tree. This year it is covered in aphids. I can't see them but I know they are there because they are raining honeydew down on the yard, the fence, and the air-conditioning unit below. The tree is also dropping its sticky leaves. I have been finding yellowed, curled-up hackberry leaves glued to the bottom of my shoes. Benji (the cat) has been leaving sticky hackberry footprints next to her food dish.
The aphids march on. The cedar elm by the back door is so sticky that the clothesline T beneath it has a coating of sugar, as if somebody poured red-label Karo over the top of the bar. My hair sticks to the metal post as I walk by it. Beneath the cedar elm, the barberry bushes are shiny with sugar, while, just to the east of the hackberry tree, my pepper plants are covered in aphids as well. I tolerate aphids in the trees, where I view them as a consequence of the season, but I get annoyed when the bugs spread into my garden.
Luckily, the solution for aphids is satisfying. I use the spray nozzle on my hose to spray the aphids off the pepper plants, holding each branch of the plant as I spray from different angles. As I spray, I'm doing something in the garden, and I'm cooling myself with over-spray, both of which are a welcome break from the routine of late summer.